Innovation talks: The new means of production

My first Irish Times Innovation Talks column was in the paper today – it’s due to be a monthly column, there or thereabouts, on various aspects of tech innovation. The first column, on how critical programming is to the future of innovation, is below.


From The Irish Times, Monday March 5th, 2012

IF YOU’RE CURIOUS about what path technological innovation might be taking in the next few years, you’d do well to learn some lessons from one of the most hyped tech start-ups of the past few months. This small company doesn’t design apps or create social networks or even build any gadgets – instead, it has the relatively modest goal of teaching people how to code. For free. It doesn’t sound like the most revolutionary of business plans, but it’s got a lot of smart people very excited.

Founded last August, Codecademy has the obligatory lofty mission statement – “Teach the world to program” – and, more importantly, an attractively designed website and some pretty engaging Javascript lessons. Within months of launching last August after a Y Combinator pitch, the start-up raised more than $2.5 million from some high-profile venture capital funds, including Union Square Ventures, O’Reilly and CrunchFund – a pretty reliable sign that education is seen as vulnerable to technological disruption. For the curious, that lesson is almost as valuable as any Javascript tutorial.

In January, founders Ryan Bubinski and Zach Sims (names a screenwriter would surely invent if writing a movie about, say, a tech start-up) launched their Code Year initiative, and the hype went up a few notches. Subscribe to the year-long course via email and a weekly lesson lands in your inbox every Monday, with the latest online exercises teaching you all about variables, arrays and strings.

Now all this sounds like it might appeal to geeks with too much time on their hands, but nearly 400,000 people signed up for Code Year, an impressive tally. Among the students is New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who declared that he was going to learn to code as his new year’s resolution. Then the Obama administration announced Code Summer+, an abbreviated version of the Code Year course targeted at low-income youth across the US. When the president jumps aboard, you know you’ve got quite the bandwagon.

But why are so many people putting so much hope into a young firm with practically zero experience of online education? And who decided it was suddenly essential to be familiar with lines of code? Surely just being comfortable using the software should suffice in this day and age, right?

Well, there’s an increasing number of people who don’t think that’s the case. One of the most articulate is Doug Rushkoff, a well-known writer often described as a “media theorist”, which is a fairly horrendous job description. His most recent book sums up his position in its pithy title – Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. “When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak,” he writes. “When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them . . . Program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilisation. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.”

Sure, this verges on histrionic, but Rushkoff’s real point isn’t so outlandish: knowing how to code is the 21st-century equivalent of knowing how to read and write – it’s literacy and numeracy combined for the computer generation. Being able to code is a vital skill in the emerging information age, and talented coders are at present a somewhat rare resource.
How valuable a resource? In a recent article, Rushkoff quotes entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, who says that in Silicon Valley talent acquisitions, “each employee who understands how to code is valued at about $500,000 to $1 million toward the total acquisition price”, which fairly puts the “resource” into “human resources”. Already, we’re used to seeing foreign tech companies with European headquarters here in Ireland bemoaning the dearth of skilled programmers.

Of course, tech companies facing a shortage of programmers aren’t like energy companies with dwindling oil reserves – programmers are a renewable resource, after all.

Which is why Codecademy is generating so much interest. In a neatly symbiotic relationship, Silicon Valley firms long relied on the computer science graduates from Stanford to fuel its appetite for code, but that’s not sustainable in the long term – Stanford only teaches so many students at any given time. One Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrun, achieved great success last year by putting his oversubscribed Artificial Intelligence undergrad course online, for free. “I empowered more students in two months than in my entire life before,” as Thrun put it. And of his 200 Stanford students, 170 stopped attending and just used the online course. Thrun reacted by leaving Stanford and founding his own online college, Udacity, following in the footsteps of Salman Khan’s extremely successful online Khan Academy.

This hints at the most important lesson that we can learn from Codecademy and its ilk – as the web increasingly disrupts the educational models we’re used to, more and more people will be able to code, and just as rising literacy levels have a transformative effect on society, rising programming literacy will in turn create further technological disruption. Where that leads is impossible to predict, but just thinking about it is where the fun starts.

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